Carrots at Vedge, a nationally-renowned restaurant that swtiched to Reserve

Carrots at Vedge, a nationally-renowned restaurant that swtiched to Reserve

Danya Henninger

Meet Reserve, the OpenTable-killer that’s taking Philly restaurants by storm

The baby reservation software is making inroads, but can it unseat the king?

Clarification appended

Vedge isn’t just considered one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia. The all-vegetable dining room makes lists when some of the most-respected publications in the field draw up surveys of the best restaurants in the entire country — just ask Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast, Eater or Bon Appetit.

Vedge is an industry leader partly because it’s a trend-setter (who knew vegan fine-dining could be so successful?), and this summer, chef-owners Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau took another risk. They stopped using OpenTable to accept reservations, and signed on with Reserve.

There were various reasons for the change, but one is most conspicuous: Saving at least $30,000 a year.

Same for Twenty Manning Grill, where GM Jillian Encarnacion estimates her OpenTable bill was around $2,500 a month before she jumped ship. At Laurel, the constantly-booked East Passyunk BYOB from “Top Chef” winner Nicholas Elmi, most reservations are made on the spot or via telephone, but Reserve will still save him around $12,000 a year.

As of right now, 40-plus restaurants in the Philly area have already made the switch, according to Reserve Philadelphia general manager Ben Fileccia. That includes high-profile spots like Village Whiskey and High Street on Market, and neighborhood favorites like Hungry Pigeon and Rex 1516. And more are on the way.

Busting a monopoly

'We took a risk,' says Vedge's Kate Jacoby, of giving up OpenTable

'We took a risk,' says Vedge's Kate Jacoby, of giving up OpenTable

Danya Henninger

It’s a dirty little secret of hospitality, but every guest whose table was booked via OpenTable costs restaurants money. If the res was made on the restaurant’s own website (via a widget), the surcharge is 25 cents. If it’s made anywhere else, like OT’s website or a partner page like Zagat.com, the restaurant pays $1 per seat.

A buck a person might not seem like a lot, but — especially at busy restaurants — the numbers add up.

Until recently, there wasn’t a great alternative. OpenTable got into the game early, and basically created the online reservations sector. When it launched (in 1998) “it was revolutionary,” Jacoby says. The company now boasts 38,000 restaurant clients worldwide. But as it became what amounts to a monopoly, with rising prices and fees, many restaurateurs began wishing for an out.

Over the past five years, a few startups have tried to challenge OpenTable’s supremacy. But none were able to make inroads as quickly and completely as Reserve seems to have.

“If Reserve can break the automatic connection between ‘Where should we go for dinner?’ and ‘Lets check OpenTable,’ that would be a gigantic industry disruption,” says Peter Hwang, co-owner of Southgate in Graduate Hospital.

There’s an important caveat to the idea that Reserve is the disrupter restaurant owners have been waiting for: It is very, very new. Like, less than 3 months old.

The San Francisco-based, venture capital-backed company launched in 2014, but back then it was just an app that let customers pay for a concierge service to get into heavily booked restaurants. Then it pivoted. Though people can still use the concierge app (now for free), Reserve’s main product now is the OpenTable competitor — officially called “Reserve for Restaurants” — which also offers additional services to help restaurants run.

More than price

Korean taco from V Street, Vedge's sister restaurant, which has also made the switch

Korean taco from V Street, Vedge's sister restaurant, which has also made the switch

Danya Henninger

Cost savings are certainly part of the early success. Where OpenTable charges a base fee of $249 a month to use its reservation system, plus up to $1 per person, the cost for Reserve is a lower, flat fee — currently $99 a month in Philadelphia — no matter how many people book through it.

“I’m a very suspicious person by nature,” says Jacoby, “and Reserve sounded ‘too good to be true’ from day one. I kept asking lots and lots of questions, but they kept giving me good, solid answers.”

She signed on. And “the product — the actual software and the customer service to back it up — is excellent.”

Reserve was started by Greg Hong, a Silicon Valley consultant whose experience in dining was on the customer side. But then he brought on Peter Esmond, a restaurant industry veteran who’d been GM at world-renowned Per Se. Esmond used his experience to develop a product that’s user friendly but also caters to restaurant owners.

Restaurateurs who’ve switched appreciate that.

“My favorite part so far is seeing things we’ve asked for get implemented in a very responsive and customized way,” says Southgate’s Hwang, “by people who enjoy doing what they do and are attuned to the restaurants’ needs.”

‘I’ll quit my job’

Ben Fileccia is a 17-year industry veteran who 'fell in love' with Reserve

Ben Fileccia is a 17-year industry veteran who 'fell in love' with Reserve

Danya Henninger

For Fileccia, the system is a dream come true.

In 2015, as director of operations at Sbraga Dining and a 17-year hospitality vet, he was well-versed in the limitations and frustrations OpenTable can present. That’s when he met Hong, who clued him in that something new was coming.

“When I met the CEO and he told me they were going to launch table management and compete,” Fileccia says, “I told him, ‘If you show me a product that actually competes with OpenTable, I’ll quit my fucking job and come work for you.”

Fast forward to early 2016. Fileccia was shown Reserve for Restaurant, ready for beta testing. He tendered his resignation to chef Kevin Sbraga (with a courteous, 90-day notice) and jumped on board with Reserve.

Or, as he puts it, “He showed me the product, and I quit my fuckin’ job.”

Fileccia says he “fell in love” with the software… which is strong terminology when you’re dealing with something not voiced by Scarlett Johansson. But, “it had the best of what we needed to elevate hospitality,” he says. “It wasn’t reinventing the wheel, it was just making it sexier.”

What makes it ‘sexy’

Foie gras terrine at Laurel, where chef-owner Nick Elmi calls Reserve 'intuitive'

Foie gras terrine at Laurel, where chef-owner Nick Elmi calls Reserve 'intuitive'

Danya Henninger

Fileccia doesn’t shy from talking about what, specifically, he thinks is “sexy” about Reserve. A fully searchable guest list is right at the top.

Searching for guests? Yes. Online reservation systems capture customer data, so front-of-house managers can track when VIPs or regulars or even one-time visitors come in again. Additionally, many restaurants take notes on guests while they dine — “This guy really loves rosé,” for instance — as part of a quest to offer better service.

“When I was working for Vetri,” Fileccia recalls, “part of my job was just Googling guests.”

OpenTable allows restaurants to search customer lists by name or phone number, Fileccia says, but Reserve’s search includes all the notes.

“What if I remember the rosé guy’s face but not his name,” Fileccia says. “I just search for ‘rosé’ and I’ve found him. Or if I’m doing a special rosé dinner and I want to send an email blast, but not to my entire list — I can find the people who’d be interested.”

Another feature is the way seating is handled. OpenTable’s algorithm for booking tables is more automatic, but that can result in under-utilized dining rooms.

Jacoby compares the flexibility of Reserve’s table management to playing Tetris. “There are few things more rewarding than squeezing in a five-top at 7:30 on a Saturday night. So far, I’ve really enjoyed that step of Reserve.”

Not everyone misses the automatic algorithm. “Reserve is a bit less intuitive and harder for hostesses to adapt to, but I think the savings are worth it,” says Rex 1516 GM Heather Rodkey.

Then again, these things vary from person to person, restaurant to restaurant. Viz Laurel’s Nick Elmi, who says: “Reserve just feels a little more intuitive. It’s a couple clicks, whether you’re the guest or the restaurant, and it’s done.”

Is there a catch?

Dining room at Twenty Manning Grill, which stands to save $30,000 a year from the switch

Dining room at Twenty Manning Grill, which stands to save $30,000 a year from the switch

Danya Henninger

Fileccia’s reputation has been key to convincing Philadelphia restaurateurs that this isn’t just another flash in the pan.

When a Food Network-backed online reservation system called CityEats launched in 2011 with a slightly lower per-guest fee, it was hailed as a welcome OpenTable competitor. It didn’t make headway, and has been since acquired and rebranded as rGuest. Among Philadelphia restaurants, it’s not in wide use.

There’s also Yelp Reservations, which offers a flat fee like Reserve. But Yelp and restaurateurs sometimes have a fraught relationship. “I don’t know that all restaurants want to align themselves with Yelp,” Fileccia observes.

What Yelp does have is 3,600 restaurants already on board and a prominent web presence. OpenTable’s reservation network is even more established.

That customers won’t be able to find them is one of the biggest reported fears restaurant owners have about switching — but those who’ve made the leap haven’t found that to be true.

“The main concern was that customers would be too set in their ways and too attached to any perks or conveniences they had established with OpenTable,” says Jacoby. “So far, that hasn’t been an issue.”

Nor has it been at Twenty Manning Grill. “They are looking for us on OpenTable and it says we are no longer on there,” says Encarnacion, who bulked up social media just in case of a drop-off, “so guests are calling to make the reservation. we are realizing it has little to do with being on OpenTable and more about your presence in the city.”

Continuing innovation

A dish at The Fat Ham, Fileccia's former place of work, the first Philly restaurant to sign on with Reserve

A dish at The Fat Ham, Fileccia's former place of work, the first Philly restaurant to sign on with Reserve

Danya Henninger

It’s not only about cost and features. Reserve has managed to cultivate that elusive ideal — it has customers that believe in it.

“While most of the features we liked in other table management systems are either currently available on Reserve or will be soon,” says Hwang, “it was more that the company is innovative and doing exciting things and have curated a list of restaurants with that same mindset.”

The “coming soon” list for Reserve isn’t small. According to Fileccia, point-of-sale integration is well on its way (connecting actual orders sent to the kitchen and bar with reservations would be a powerful tool). So is inventory management. And the company recently acquired payment app Dash, so that will likely get woven into the fabric soon.

As all the progress happens, Reserve continues to put a premium on maintaining customer service — and that includes servicing the restaurants themselves.

Fileccia says GMs and restaurant owners text him all the time with requests, via messages that come to him through the Reserve app. Once, he says, Zahav managers even sent him a note asking, “A Reserve customer left their phone on an Uber on their way here, what do we do?”

So is Reserve a real threat, something that can bust the OpenTable monopoly?

“If they continue to stay at the top of the customer service game,” says Jacoby, “it’s just a matter of time.”

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